Old meets new

A shopper walks down one of the aisles at El Mercado on a recent afternoon. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Changes afoot at Market Square

A restaurant worker wearing a trademark white shirt and black trousers hoists a squeegee, gently nudging a puddle of rainwater away from the entryway. Mid-afternoon sunlight slowly warms the pavers in Mariachi Plaza, as an elderly man dozes on a nearby wrought-iron bench.

A young woman steps away from her dining companions, walks to the man on the bench, and deposits a package of two fresh flour tortillas and a handful of corn chips onto his lap. The man, stirred from his afternoon siesta by the impromptu gift, takes a few chips, crushes them on one of the bench slats, and spreads the crumbs around his feet.

Pigeons flock around the man's shoes and jostle for wing space as they peck at the crumbs. After a few minutes, the man relocates to a more remote bench on the plaza, and resumes his slumber as a custodian sweeps the fallen leaves from a nearby potted hibiscus bush that stubbornly clings to a single red bloom - braving the onslaught of a South Texas-style winter.

A four-member mariachi band strolls through the plaza, and enters the always-open doors of Mi Tierra Restaurant, and only a few moments pass before the group has found a tableful of appreciative diners. The strains of their serenade waft onto Paseo de Pete Cortez, or Produce Row, in the heart of El Mercado. The song, "Guantanamera," is one of the timeless tunes (borrowed from Cuba) that preserve the flavor of Old México in a once bustling center of commerce for all of San Antonio.

This is Market Square, a former meat and produce market with all the trappings of life in San Antonio and now the fourth-ranked tourist destination in Alamo City. There is a sense of things that have been, and of things yet to happen, in this oasis on one end of downtown where a commercial center with a México feeling once covered an entire six-block area west of San Pedro Creek. The creek was the demarcation line between the Anglo and Mexican communities that served San Antonio's long-term evolution into today's big city with the small-town mentality.

There has always been a market. The first was a limestone market house adjacent to Plaza de las Islas, in which various meats were showcased for local restaurant chefs and the denizens of household kitchens. Locally grown vegetables were sold from wagons and carts in the nearby Military Plaza, the center of civilization, until City leaders built City Hall in 1889, pushing chili queens and local farmers westward to where the market has evolved in its present location.

At the turn of the century, the City built a $40,000 Market House in present-day El Mercado. It also served as a convention hall with excellent acoustics, but the structure, built by local architect Alfred Giles, was demolished in the late 1930s to make way for the current, largely nondescript building that is the "Original Market Square." The City also tore down the original market building to make way for the San Antonio River flood channel.

No longer will we see wagons line Produce Row, Concho, and San Saba streets at 5 a.m., ready for the day's customers. El Mercado has evolved into its final product: a tourist destination attractive for San Antonio residents who aren't afraid of visiting the central business district.

But there is a distinct feeling that something is about to happen again - something big - in El Mercado.

Renovation crews are busy inside a building at 103 Produce Row, at the corner of Santa Rosa and Dolorosa streets. Various tenants can only say there are rumors that the Cortez family, proprietors of La Margarita and Mi Tierra restaurants, and owners of the various buildings on the south side of Produce Row, are planning to open an oyster bar, or a seafood restaurant.

The curator of an art gallery points across Concho Street to an empty space where another work crew is busy renovating the exterior. "There are rumors that it will be anything from an oyster bar to another jewelry shop," says Kris Anne Frost of Galeria Ortiz, which stands at the corner of Concho and Dolorosa. "But it would be wonderful if we could get more sophisticated art galleries in here."

Tourists are the main supporters of the various shops, restaurants, and art galleries in El Mercado, Frost acknowledges, but "we wish we could get locals to come here."

Perhaps it is the long-standing impression that the only items to be purchased at El Mercado are chile pepper Christmas lights, "I Love San Antonio" T-shirts, and Mexican blankets dyed with the image of purple donkeys.

The most obvious sign that things are primed to change is an unfinished building on the site of the former state welfare office at Santa Rosa and Commerce streets. The raspberry-and-lime-raspa colored two-story edifice, projected to cost about $9.1 million, will be the Museo Americano, affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution and the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts. The building needs an interior finish-out, and installation of glass panels on the steel beams that face Santa Rosa, at a cost of $2 million.

"We are the hub for Latino Arts and Culture," says Ruth Medellin, executive director of Centro Alameda Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to creating and sustaining a "National Center for Latino Arts and Culture through the arts, economic development, education, and entertainment." Museo Americano is part of a plan to develop a cultural complex at the west end of downtown, as it once was. When the museum is finished and opened for business, possibly by December this year, work will resume on restoring the Alameda Theater on Houston Street.

"Until now, we have been a museum without walls," says Medellin. The museum will ultimately feature public performances on the Paseo and galleries with a Mexican-American cultural focus.

The City owns the Original Market Square on the north side of Produce Row, and the former open air produce market building that sits on part of the old Haymarket Plaza. Tenants occupy market stalls and full-fledged storefronts, and pay rent to the City. Many tenants have been there for years, passing the family business down through generations.

Yvette Ramirez, proprietor of Lou's Saloon on Produce Row, is fairly new to El Mercado; her family has done business in the plaza for the past 16 years. "This is a diamond in the rough, a jewel as far as the market is concerned," she says. "We're only three hours from México, and it's the closest place to the border to get handmade Mexican curios. And there's a lot in store for the future of Market Square."

Ramirez says she would like to see the private and public sector cooperate more closely with activities that unfold at El Mercado. Currently, the city's market properties open only during daytime, with businesses closing at 6 p.m. By that time "we get tourists who want music, food booths; they come looking for fiestas," at nighttime. She suggests a return of the chile queen-style food booths, with gorditas, enchiladas, and tacos in a more permanent set-up of booths on Produce Row. She would like to see more mariachis and guitar-strumming troubadores strolling along the paseo, entertaining tourists and locals alike.

El Mercado was once a bustling hub of commerce in San Antonio, where its citizens swarmed the meat market and the produce wagons before dawn each day. Today, its pace has somewhat slowed, perhaps just passing the time, inevitably evolving and re-emerging into the surrounding city blocks; San Antonio's Mexican Quarter, growing up and out of the city's old Market Square.

By Michael Cary

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